Cultivating community—prompting online discussions

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In a previous blog post I wrote about the educator’s online presence in discussion forums. This blog entry focuses on writing discussion prompts that cultivate distance learning students’ active learning. Active learning depends on students being both socially and cognitively present, so it’s important to develop an array of prompts that foster both, but not necessarily at the same time. A variety of prompt types will also keep students engaged. Below, you’ll find a variety of prompts that have generated lively online discussions.

Responding to a case, article, or text

Posting a case or a provocative reading, and asking intriguing questions to launch the discussion will help students think through ambiguous or complex situations and apply course principles to new material. For instance, in a business communication class I have presented students with details of a small business that is challenged in its internal/staff communication, customer correspondence, and social media presence. With a different discussion forum for each type of challenge, students are focused in addressing the particular problem, but have enough leeway to discuss the appropriate communication principles.

Such a prompt provides an opportunity for the professor to link the discussion to specific learning objectives.

Appeal to students’ social and cognitive presence

As we approach the end of term, I asked stressed-out business writing students to provide an example of a communication that made them happy that week. There were a number of quite wonderful posts, and the one that stands out was from a father who wrote about how his daughter researched and wrote her first letter to Santa Claus—he included a picture of her charming letter—and how his daughter had a moment of joyous recognition that her own writing could influence her world.

This prompt yielded a bumper crop of posts that developed and supported both the cognitive and social presence of the students because it focused on each writer’s reflective experience and used communication to share a relatable experience with the rest of our class community.

Use the technology available

I have asked students in our Organization Behavior: Leadership program to record an interview a mentor who inspired them to leadership. When each student had posted the audio interview, we had a lively and informative discussion as well as a great repository of inspiration. I have also asked writing students to post a short video or image of their work space and comment on why it works for them. This prompted a lively discussion on good work habits.

Play casting director

For a literature class, where we were discussing character, I asked students to cast Shakespeare’s The Tempestwith modern actors. In addition to their cast list, the students posted pictures and rationales for both individual choices and why certain actors would work well together in particular scenes. I was amused to find, in a cohort program, that the students took to casting each other in key roles, serving an unexpected social purpose as well as cognition of the principles as I had originally envisioned.

Reflect on the nature of experience

Sometimes a discussion prompt can bring the distance learning enterprise itself into question. In Stanford University’s popular MOOC, Digging Deeper 1: Making Manuscripts, one of the first discussion questions was “what do you miss in looking at a digital reproduction of a manuscript as opposed to encountering the physical object in a library or repository?” This question prompted many reflective responses among students and many self-directed visits to local scholarly repositories of manuscripts.

Invite students to have a new experience

Students are often intimidated by what they perceive as difficult course material. Online discussion forums can make intimidating material more accessible. When I teach literature, I try to demystify poetry, to make the students open to the types of experiences they might have as they read poetry. I ask them to write one haiku every day during the week of discussion, and I also post my own. I’m no Bashō, so my efforts are on a level with theirs. Most students find this reassuring, and approach the reading of more complex forms of poetry with minds more receptive to the possibilities and delights of poetry.

Honor each student’s quest for knowledge

Toward the end of the term, ask students to relate interesting information that they have uncovered in their research but could not find a place for in their final essays. This prompt broadens the community of knowledge and reinforces the value of the time they have spent on research, even research they have no immediate need for.

Put students in the educator’s seat

Allow your students to take ownership of the discussion forums; let them develop prompts that intrigue them. You may select the best or allow students to vote on the best. Alternatively, assign students or teams of students to monitor a discussion forum.

These examples have been meant to inspire you to develop prompts relevant to your own disciplines and online courses. I would love to hear about interesting prompts you have written or answered; these can be posted in the comments section below.

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